Museums warned to check for looted art

May 14, 1999

The Museums and Galleries Commission this week issued guidance to museums on researching their collections for works of art stolen during the Nazi Holocaust and second world war.

The advice is aimed at MGC- registered museums, a group that includes 90 university museums. Timothy Mason, MGC director, said the commission and government are committed to "ensuring United Kingdom museums and galleries have taken reasonable steps to guarantee works of art which might have been wrongfully taken during world war two are identified".

If a museum discovers an object in its collection that was, or is likely to have been, wrongfully taken, this information should be made public and the MGC and Department of Culture, Media and Sport informed.

Duncan Robinson, director of Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum, welcomed the advice. He said: "We compile a complete provenance of all objects held at the Fitzwilliam. My feeling is things can slip, but we are committed to ensuring we do not hold looted works. If we had any doubts we would act - we are publicly accountable and would have to declare any misgivings. We certainly could not conceal them."

There is also mounting worldwide concern about illegal exports of looted works. A test case is under way in the United States, where two paintings borrowed for exhibition by the New York Museum of Modern Art are at the centre of a criminal investigation by the authorities. The disputed works, by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, are alleged to have been stolen by Nazis in pre-war Austria.

Alistair Smith, director of Manchester University's Whitworth Gallery, says the MGC's advice is timely in the light of the "landmark" case in the US.

While the final decision in the MoMA case will not necessarily have an effect in the UK, because of differences in law, Mr Smith believes it is important that an international code of practice is developed covering the holding of looted works and their illegal export.

Mr Smith, who is also chairman of the University Museums Group, said: "This guidance should become part of everyday practice in university museums."

Key MGC recommendations for museums include collating and monitoring new information about the provenance of works for 1933-45 and the identification of any objects whose provenance is unknown at any point during those years.

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